Why ITC’s Sanjiv Puri champions Sustainable Agriculture

Food is the essence of life. Apart from being necessary for survival, it is emotional, evocative and comforting. It can soothe the soul, enhance moments and turn the humdrum into joy. Most television advertising is focused around these aspects. Happy families, lunches, dinners, meetings, special moments and more. The producer of the food though, the farmers and their families, are never seen. It is almost as if they don’t exist except in newsprint when you hear of drought or floods or farm distress.

Yet, the third largest food company in India has taken out an advertising campaign focused on farmers. “Sab Saath Badhein” (When the economy, environment and society grow together) is ITC’s corporate campaign focusing on projects that aim at improving the quality of life of farmers and their families. This though is not just a campaign, says Mr. Sanjiv Puri, Managing Director, ITC, “I believe that Indian farmers are amongst the world’s most hard working, resilient and enterprising. They can adopt solutions that are progressive and sustainable. Our extensive engagements with them has led to significant productivity increases and has played an important role in ITC’s journey of transformation.”

It’s never easy to change, and more so when you are a large business. ITC’s transformation in that sense, from a tobacco and hotels company to one of India’s fastest growing FMCG companies and the country’s 3rd largest food company, has been laudable. And to achieve this in less than 10 years is even more so. Mr. Sanjiv Puri, who has been part of this rapid scale up and transformation, says, “ITC’s triple bottomline approach, constituting people, planet and profit has played a strong role in achieving this transformative growth.”

He says, “Whatever ITC does, it does with passion, energy and a tremendous desire to excel. We didn’t just make a decision to transform, we went after every single thing that could be done to grow responsibly. We went to the farmers and undertook a holistic rural development programme that included setting up of digital infrastructure for them as part of our celebrated e-Choupal intervention; we worked on watershed development and afforestation;. We didn’t stop there, we have been working actively to double farmer incomes and create sustainable livelihoods. Over the past 21 years, ITC’s turnover has grown 11 times but what really shows our commitment to deliver across all dimensions of the Triple Bottom Line is that ITC has been carbon positive for 13 years and water positive for over 16 years. This is not all, over 43% of ITC’s energy comes from renewable sources like biomass, wind, and solar. Moreover, the company has greened over 6,80,000 acres and brought soil and moisture conservation to over 9,00,000 acres.” ITC has created sustainable livelihoods for over 6 million people.

The company has set an ambitious goal of achieving a turnover of rupees one lakh crore from its new FMCG businesses by 2030. It is therefore a given that the sustainability efforts will need to be scaled up too. Not just in terms of doing more of the usual, but innovating to charter new paths in areas like water stewardship, plastic waste management and increasing focus on renewables, etc.

ITC’s decades-old relationship with millions of farmers across India has enabled it to make a largescale contribution to the agriculture sector. This relationship with the rural communities, primarily through the e-Choupal initiative, has deepened over the years with the expansion and growth of ITC’s businesses, particularly ITC Foods. The celebrated e-Choupal intervention has provided farmers internet access to link them to the market. The hitherto isolated farmer now has access to real-time weather and price information, relevant knowledge and services, to enhance farm productivity, improve quality and command better prices – thus improving their competitiveness and capacity to manage risk. The programme has benefitted 4 million farmers.

With the e-Choupal as the centre, ITC has implemented an end-to-end rural development programme, expanding and growing in areas like sustainable agriculture, watershed development, animal husbandry, and afforestation, thus preserving and replenishing precious environmental resources.

ITC’s strategy to nurture and strengthen its agri value chains has added a unique advantage to its Foods Business. Through the e-Choupal, ITC has been sourcing high-quality, identity-preserved agricultural raw material directly from the farmers and manufactures products according to consumer preferences. Such competitive value chains eliminate wasteful interventions by unscrupulous middlemen, thereby benefitting farmers as well, as they receive a larger part of the consumer spend and are able align their produce to market demands. There is however no written contract with the farmers and they are free to transact at will and sell to whoever they choose and ITC stands as a willing buyer of the produce.

ITC’s endeavors and interventions in rural India are particularly relevant, given the challenges faced by agriculture in India today. Agriculture is the mainstay of the Indian economy, contributing to over 16 percent of India’s GDP. The uncertainties in growth in agriculture are explained by the fact that more than 50 percent of agriculture in India is rainfall dependent, which aggravate the production risks. Therefore, largescale modern, scientific and technological interventions, like climate smart and sustainable agriculture, are required to provide meaningful solutions to the challenges here.

“A big barrier that ITC faced,” says Puri, “was the availability of cultivable land. But we were ready to play the long term game. We invested in making barren land cultivable, enabling farmers who owned wastelands and lands with low levels of productivity to grow commercially viable pulpwood plantations, thereby turning an unproductive asset into a profitable one.” This not only created a green cover but also created large scale livelihoods for marginal farmers and tribals.

ITC has spearheaded interventions that have the potential to contribute significantly to the Prime Minister’s Vision of Doubling Farmer Incomes. ITC has implemented over the last 4 years, an integrated pilot programme christened Baareh Mahine Hariyali to double farmer incomes in 4 districts of Uttar Pradesh reaching out to nearly 2,00,000 farmers. More than 30,000 farmers have already experienced doubling of incomes.

The journey though is still in its nascent stages and Sanjiv Puri believes that there are many more mountains to climb. Keeping in mind the steep projections for the future, ITC plans to continue on this path through a strategy it calls responsible competitiveness. He says, “Going forward, ITC will continue to scale up its existing programmes, add new dimensions based on emerging needs and gaps, and link up with the government through existing schemes and public-private people partnerships as far as possible. As part of our future plans is a core commitment to create 10 million sustainable livelihoods by 2030.”

Based on a conversation with Mr. Sanjiv Puri, Managing Director, ITC

(Original Post)

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